Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Let me see! I want to see!

There’s some basic human impulse, deep within all of us, that makes us want to see what other people are seeing. Who among us could resist the temptation to look up, if we saw half a dozen other people staring at a point above our heads? Let’s call it the me-too response. For some reason, the human psyche is hard-wired to want to know what the interesting thing is that other people are looking at.

As you might know if you’ve spent much time traveling, basic human impulses like these are expressed differently in different cultures. And if we can call this impulse, as experienced by North Americans, the me-too response, then in China, it’s the me-four or me-eight response. Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd.

This afternoon, Des and I went to the local supermarket to pick up some groceries. The baby, dozing in her stylish sling, accompanied us. Chloe is adorable, especially in such fashionable gear, and so naturally she draws looks and comments wherever she goes. But today, we did something we haven’t done before: we stopped to let someone admire her. A pair of old ladies, trailed by a little girl, corralled us and insisted on doting on Chloe for a few moments, which we were happy to let them do. A few seconds later, a college student stopped and began to translate their questions and remarks. A housewife wandered over from the vegetable stand. A sunburned man peered over my shoulder and chuckled at Chloe’s little hands waving in the air. In less than thirty seconds, we were obstructing the aisle, and people were converging on us from every display within a hundred feet. We fled the scene while there were still escape routes open to us.

On Sunday, a friend and I were driving through one of the busier parts of Shanghai when traffic came to a complete standstill. We inched forward for five minutes until we came in view of perhaps fifty or sixty people standing in the center of the intersection blocking traffic. Old men in their pajamas, guys in suits, hardhatted workmen stripped to the waist with shovels over their shoulders, ladies holding shopping bags, and the like were crowding in, trying to get a glimpse of what was obviously an accident. There were so many people that, even as we drove by, I could hardly see what was happening. I spotted what I think was a guy sitting on the pavement, and possibly a policeman talking to him. The cops weren’t even trying to get people to leave.

Maybe this is just another way that gregarious, uninhibited societies like the Chinese express themselves, and things are the same in places like Brazil. Or maybe the traffic accident was a fluke, and my daughter has some kind of mysterious Pied Piper-like power over other people, even in her infancy. As long as I’m immune, I’m hoping for the latter.


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